The Poem

“Rock and Hawk,” one of Robinson Jeffers’s most often reprinted short poems, has been regularly identified as one of his signature pieces—that is, it presents, in simple, direct form, one of his main themes. That theme has been called “Inhumanism.” It is based in the concept that humans, far from being the central point of reference in the cosmos, are a minor component of the process, significant only because they are capable of producing damage out of proportion to their importance. The idea is Darwinian, growing out of Jeffers’s post-college researches in medicine and biology. It can be considered an early statement of the radical environmental attitude.

The poem accomplishes this by presenting what it calls a “symbol”: a falcon perched on an ancient, massive rock high on a headland. In this symbol, the poem states, “Many high tragic thoughts/ Watch their own eyes.” This complex allusion draws several ideas together. On one level, thoughts of high tragedy have conventionally been those that best represented the values of human civilization, those qualities that humans prized. Here they “watch their own eyes,” as if distrustful of their own motives. Second, in one high tragedy, that of Oedipus, the hero literally pierces his eyes because of the horror he has been forced to discover about himself. Finally, if thoughts of high tragedy are thus suspect, their eyes betray fundamental human hypocrisy. The rock juts out, the single...

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Forms and Devices

Robinson Jeffers is remarkable among modern poets for his simplicity of presentation. He uses a minimum of effects, preferring, like his biblical models, to rely on basic devices to project his themes. “Rock and Hawk” is no exception. It is one of Jeffers’s “short line” poems, in which he forsakes his customary preference for long lines—those with more than five stresses. This poem presents seven three-line stanzas, each with three stresses spaced irregularly.

This stark simplicity serves his subject well. It is doubled by his diction. The poem first announces that it centers on a symbol, thereby spelling out what it is doing. It follows this with an arresting phrase and a classical figure: In this symbol, “high tragic thoughts/ Watch their own eyes.” The figure is a double paradox—thoughts cannot literally watch, and things cannot in any case look at their own eyes. The figure reminds one of the celebrated passage in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (c. 1599-1600) in which Cassius asks Brutus, “Can you see yourself, Brutus?” Jeffers uses the figure to suggest a number of things, chief among which is probably that Western culture’s conventional ways—the high tragic ways—of looking at things may not be enough.

The second stanza presents the first part of the symbol, the rock, standing “where the seawind/ Lets no tree grow.” This personification is important. It suggests that control resides in the...

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